Vanishing points - Page 2

Real change, or changing the subject — the search for truth within Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666

We have symbolically redeemed our sins against civilian casualties and third world workers, without too much painful self-examination. I could see that Obama's brand of change was really so seductive because it offered a chance to change the subject.

Like Ronald Reagan, elected while the U.S. was mired in recession and post-Vietnam soul-searching, Barack Obama developed campaign narratives that made the U.S. feel good about itself again. Obama guessed correctly that national morale is low partially because we don't want to deal with the nameless guilt we feel from the atrocities Bush and company committed in our names. Accordingly, he stated during his campaign that he would not pursue criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nor has Obama questioned the preposterous idea that we can win either a War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. If you think about it, "Yes We Can" — his campaign's appeal to good old American can-do spirit — isn't far off in substance from Bush's faith-based convictions about U.S. power. Both Bush's crusade to make democracy flower in the desert of Iraq and Obama's notion that the auto industry could save itself — and the planet! — with electric cars are fantasies that appeal to our sense of pride about being the richest and most powerful.

When a country that is owned by China and is getting its ass kicked simultaneously by ragged guerilla armies in two of the most impoverished and backward parts of the world keeps finding new ways to tell itself that it's the richest and most powerful country, it is in deep trouble.

When political leaders and journalists seek to generate false narratives for our consumption and comfort, the difficult task of remembering the truth falls to literature.

Roberto Bolaño completed 2666 in 2003, shortly before he died, too poor to receive a liver transplant, at the age of 50. Born in Chile, Bolaño counted himself a member of "the generation who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell," and was himself something of a vanished writer. Briefly jailed during the 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popularly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Bolaño wandered in exile from Mexico City to Spain, working variously as a janitor and a dishwasher, entering obscure literary competitions advertised on the backs of magazines, while his generation was consumed by Pinochet's secret prisons and torture cells.

Fittingly, disappearance is perhaps the main action of characters in Bolaño's works, from the vanished fascist poet and skywriter in 1996's Distant Star (published in English by New Directions in 2004) to the entire romantic generation of doomed Mexican poets and radicals followed across the span of decades and continents to its vanishing point in a desert of crushed hopes in 1998's The Savage Detectives (published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007). In 2666, the terminally ill Bolaño wrote as if in an urgent race against the moment of his own departure, unwilling to leave anything out, as if he wanted to save an entire lost underworld from banishment. Taking on every genre from detective noir to the war novel to romantic comedy in an exhilarating, nearly 1,000-page race to the finish, the book is Bolaño's epic of the disappeared.

The periphery of 2666 teems with Bolaño's archetypal lost and doomed, a host of minor characters including a former Black Panther leader turned barbecue cook, various Russian writers purged by Stalin during World War II, a Spanish poet living out his days in an asylum, and an acclaimed British painter who cuts off his own hand.

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